The Last Train to Key West by Chanel Cleeton

One




            SATURDAY, AUGUST 31, 1935





Helen



I’ve imagined my husband’s death a thousand times. It starts, always, on the boat. There are waves, and perhaps some wind, and then he’s pitched over the edge, into the sea, the water carrying him away on a strong tide, his head bobbing in the churn of turquoise and aqua, the vessel swaying to and fro in the middle of the ocean without another soul nearby to come to its aid.

            Sometimes the image assaults me as I go about my day, hanging the laundry on the clothesline, the white sheets flapping in the breeze, the scent of lye on the air. Sometimes I ease into it, my thoughts lulling me away as I daydream, when I’m frying the fish Tom catches when he goes out on the Helen, a vessel with whom I share two things in common: a name, and the fact that our glory days have long since passed.

            Other times it comes to me in sleep, and I jolt awake, my breaths harsh and ragged, mixing with the sound of my husband snoring beside me, his hairy arm thrown over my waist, his breath hot on my neck, the scent of gin oozing from his pores.

            This morning, it’s the dream, and when I wake, no arm holds me down; the space beside me is empty, an indent in the mattress from where my husband’s body lay.

            How could I have overslept?

            I dress quickly, going through my morning ablutions efficiently in the water closet, hoping for the proper balance between looking pleasing and expediency. The tenor of our days is set in the mornings, in the early moments before Tom goes out to sea, the sun hours from showing its face.

            If Tom is happy, if the weather is good, the fish plentiful, if I do as I am supposed to, it will be a passable day. If Tom isn’t happy—

            A wave of nausea hits me. Pain pulses at my abdomen, settling deep in my lower back, and I brace myself against the bedroom wall. The baby kicks, and I slide my hand down to catch the end of the movement.

            These past few weeks, the baby has become more active, rolling and jabbing, pushing to make its way into the world now that the due date is near.

            The nausea subsides, and I right myself, the pain passing as quickly as it came.

            I walk from the bedroom to the main part of the cottage. Tom is seated at the table shoved into one corner of the open room that serves as our kitchen, living, and dining space.

            When Tom first brought me here after our marriage nine years ago, it seemed the perfect place for us to start our life together—the home where we would grow our family. I scrubbed every inch of it until it shone, roamed the beaches when Tom was out to sea, and collected all sort of interesting things that had been cast ashore by boaters and smugglers, repurposing them as furniture we could ill afford to buy. The dining table where Tom’s body looms was once a crate that likely carried contraband alcohol back in the day when doing so was a crime.

            Where I once cleaned with pride for all of the possibility of what could be, I now see the loss of all we could have been, the house where I poured so many dreams just another promise left unfulfilled.

            Floorboards are missing, paint peeling on the exterior, our living space shared with all manner of beasts and vermin that push their way inside all available nooks and crevices, the proximity to the water—not even fifty feet away—the only thing to recommend it.

            Tom’s boat is moored in the cove, within an easy distance. When Tom is at sea, the cottage is cozy, the mangroves surrounding us our protection from the outside world. When he is home, it is a pair of hands around my neck.

            “Storm’s coming,” Tom rumbles, his back to me, the added weight from the baby making my footsteps heavier than usual, announcing my presence before I have steeled myself for the first moment of contact. His chair is positioned so he can gaze out the window at the ocean beyond. For a fisherman, the weather is everything.